FEATURE13 September 2018

Breaking Britain’s political deadlock

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The UK’s two main parties have been in deadlock since the general election in 2017, so BritainThinks set out to understand the reasons for the political impasse and explore what could be done to break out of it.

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Conservative and Labour have remained almost neck and neck in the polls, but 41% of the population do not feel well represented by any political party, according to BMG research from April this year.

Last week, BritainThinks conducted two focus groups with swing voters in two marginal seats – Thurrock and Crewe – and a poll with a representative sample of 2,000 adults.

Research published by the company in January found that 81% agree the British public is currently feeling anxious about the future, and the workshops found this sense of anxiety and uncertainty has continued among voters, with the feeling that neither party is doing enough to alleviate concerns. The biggest worries for voters were around public services – namely the NHS, policing and education.

Brexit was also at the forefront of minds, but while participants felt it was vital that the government sticks to the ‘will of the people’ and the result of the referendum, most did not have a strong view on what sort of deal should be pursued.

When it comes to perceptions of the two parties, the Conservative brand appears to have remained consistent – the party continues to be seen as clearly representing high-earners and the upper classes, the research found. Seventy-four per cent of survey respondents said the Conservatives represent ‘high-earners’, 46% said they represent ‘traditional Conservative voters’ and 38% agreed the party stands for ‘middle class people’.

Participants in the workshop research were unanimous that the Tories would always represent the upper classes and society’s high-earners, reflected in the types of images associated with Conservative voters – with participants mentioning polo, large houses, whisky and professional careers.

Perceptions of Labour painted a far more mixed picture, with no clear definition of who the party represented. The top survey responses were ‘people who weren’t born in the UK’ ( 27%), ‘working class people’ ( 25%), ‘people in towns and cities’ ( 23%) and ‘unemployed people’ ( 17%). Under a fifth of respondents ( 17%) said the party represents traditional Labour voters.

Participants in the qualitative research felt Labour no longer represents working class values, with one respondent aged 18-44 saying: “I don’t think Labour now stands for the kinds of values that it stood for when I was a child.”

When asked what represents Labour today, participants mentioned quinoa, craft lager, protest and activism – a shift from the party’s main perception in the 1980s as standing for the working class and people who would go for a pie and a pint.

At a presentation of the research findings in London earlier this week, Deborah Mattinson, founding partner at BritainThinks, said: “In the 1980s, there was also a perception of Labour (in London and the south east) as representing the ‘loony left’ and hippie ideals. Labour has moved from one archetype to another.”

When asked what would make voters more likely to vote for one party over another, more public spending came out top for the Conservatives, with 40% saying increased investment in the NHS would make them more likely to vote Tory – even if it resulted in higher taxation.

A move towards the centre ground in politics would be favoured by 9%, while there was no appetite for the Conservatives moving further to the right (-18%). A tenth ( 9%) said they’d be more likely to vote Conservative if Theresa May was replaced as prime minister.

For Labour, 14% said they would be more likely to vote for the party if it replaced Jeremy Corbyn as leader. There was no appetite for Labour moving further to the left (-22%).

Mattinson said: “The challenge for Labour is how they position themselves to take more of a centre stage in politics. They need to position themselves as a credible party for people.”